Happy meetings at St. Petersburg's Alésia 

Alésia’s Viet-French cuisine continues to shine.

From the modest parking lot and unassuming façade on Central Avenue, you’d never know that Alésia’s charming courtyard exists. But as you pass through the sleek interior dining room and exit out the back door, you’re transported to another world.

To your left, an enormous, colorful bougainvillea tree climbs up a trellis and curves over the patio like a large comforting hand. Two-tops and four-tops are scattered about on either side of a large family-sized table that bisects the space — in direct line with the door to the kitchen that occupies its own building and serves as the space’s back wall.

It’s beautifully lit, and the captivating atmosphere builds anticipation for the delightful food to come. It’s part Saigon and part Paris. The cuisine is not the hybrid from 150 years of French colonization, but rather a bifurcated menu where East and West coexist.

Perhaps the Asian allure of airy, shrimp-flavored chips strikes your fancy. They’re light and crisp, and the fresh seasonal house-made dipping salsa only adds to their appeal. Maybe you’re feeling in the mood for a bowl of European comfort food in the guise of traditional French onion soup with bacon, topped with a baguette crouton and melted gruyère cheese. It’s lush and tasty — better than most versions I’ve had lately. But it still lacks the deep caramelization Julia Child taught us to love.

The soup du jour offers a variety of regional seasonally prepared soups; we sample a bisque of lovely butternut squash with a luxurious mouth feel that bursts with flavor. The vegetarian summer rolls are also a hit at our table; I've brought a larger group than I usually do because the prices are so reasonable. They chow down on the rice paper wrappers filled with fresh mushrooms, mint and vermicelli served with thick hoisin peanut sauce. There are smiles all around. I can’t convince my companions to try the traditionally French charcuterie or cheese platters, so we just move on to entrées.

Ratatouille niçoise is delicious, but more like soup then the traditional roasted vegetable stew that I’m used to from my Provençal travels. It’s got all the usual veggie suspects, but they’re swimming in a garlicky tomato broth. I decide to dump the mound of accompanying fluffy couscous in my bowl and stir things up. It’s odd, but yummy.

Baby bok choy is a great vegetarian option. It’s lightly sautéed with garlic, onions, earthy mushrooms, and sweet carrots, then topped with a bright hit of cilantro. If you wish to add protein, you can choose from either shrimp or tofu — but it’s really tasty as is.

Pho, that staple of Vietnamese cuisine in the USA, has oodles of rice noodles in a layered broth that hits the spot. With fresh herbs and choice of meat — traditional (lean beef & brisket), pho tái (lean beef,) or pho gà (chicken) — it’s a meal in itself. Native English speakers see “pho” and want to say “foe.” But in Vietnamese, which is a tonal language difficult for most Americans, the correct way is more like “fuh.” I’m trying to learn authentic pronunciations for non-English dishes, and encourage you to do the same; it’s the least we can do as we appropriate dishes from global gastronomy.

Alésia’s meat choices prove to be scrumptious as well. Both the soy-marinated Chinese beef short ribs and the grilled pork sirloin back ribs with a spicy-sweet ginger glaze are fall-off-the-bone tender. They’re served with your choice of crisp house greens, roasted vegetables or, my favorite, a creamy individual potato au gratin portion that is outstanding. I enjoy these both so much that I can’t wait to return to try the oven-roasted Cornish game hen — something you don’t see on menus every day.

Despite minimal consumption of alcohol, my table is getting rowdy. I blame this on an extroverted out-of-town guest whom all the locals are excited to see. Time to use dessert as a diversion. I have trouble selling the table traditional Vietnamese “chè bap” tapioca corn pudding or French crepes — even with the promise of Nutella filling.

We settle on chocolate mousse, which is disappointing and tastes of cocoa instead of chocolate. The warm bread pudding fares better, especially with the vanilla bean ice cream. But the star, which transcends the same ice cream that also accompanies it, is the quartet of banana spring rolls. Each sweet ripe warm banana slice is wrapped in a flat crispy triangular shell drizzled with honey and sesame seeds. The combination of flavors and textures brings the elusive element of surprise that I always hope for.

The wine list isn’t large, but it is exceptionally well-chosen, diverse and fairly priced. Alésia offers both a Riesling and a Chenin Blanc by the glass, both white varietals that deserve more attention. Dr. Loosen from Mosel in Germany makes some of the best affordable Riesling on the market, and the Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, France shares the Riesling’s bracing acidity that makes your palate want to take another bite of food.

And at Alésia, that’s a very good thing indeed.

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